Turkish Doctors and Activists Question Police Tactics

Is tear gas making people sick?

BY TAYLOR GILMAN (story and photos) and SASHA WARD (video)


Government supporters contest the annual LGBT Pride March in Istanbul on June 30, 2013.

Oral tradition plays a huge role in Turkish culture. Stories and legends are passed on from family to family and kept alive through kinship. When one story gets passed along, it is expected that the meaning may change. This is not a big deal in the art of story-telling, but when the safety of millions of people are at risk, it is important to seek the truth the best one can.

Ever since anti-government riots broke out in Turkey in late May, truth has become elusive. What started as an attempt to salvage Gezi Park, one of the last green spaces in the heart of Istanbul, has flourished into a nation-wide call for social and political justice. Sasha Ward examines these forces of resistance in her short documentary, “Cihangir Resistance: Generations United”:

On this quest for truth, however, citizens have found that the media is censored, the government is punishing protestors and those who help them, and anyone can get arrested for merely sending a message on Twitter. Rumors are as familiar to Istanbul as smells of roasted chestnuts and corn on the cob, and no one can be sure of anyone’s intentions.


Police await confrontation during a journalist demonstration in Istanbul on July 12, 2013.

When it comes to the police’s crowd-control tactics and its medical effects on Istanbul residents, this is especially the case. In the Gezi Park protests, it is estimated that five people have died and over 5,000 have been injured, but how does anyone know for sure? The German Hospital in the trendy neighborhood of Cihangir, for example, took in many injured activists. One receptionist remarked that, “Hundreds of people have been treated here, and many are still being taken care of,” but when the chief doctor was questioned about the sorts of injuries she saw at the hospital over the last few weeks, the doctor hesitated to speak at all. She, too, was afraid—and with good reason.

Doctors in Turkey have been targeted by the government for assisting wounded protesters. In a press release, the Turkish Medical Association stated that the government has asked for the names of physicians, students of medicine, and health workers involved the protests, as well as the names of people who received medical care. The TMA also noted that Turkish government has also categorized doctors as criminals for doing their job as stated by international law.

But as social resistance continues in the city, doctors are quietly concerned about long-term health risks caused by allegedly illegal police tactics. Doctors and activists alike question their safety and human rights.

Eriş, who asked not to give her last name, is a young, female general practitioner at a public hospital near Taksim. Eriş was alarmed by the injuries she has witnessed, and is concerned for the protesters’ safety.

“Police shoot tear gas canisters directly at people,” Eriş said, “I have seen the brain be exposed from a broken skull due to this type of brutality.”

This is not the only account of Turkish police shooting tear gas bombs directly at protesters in order to disperse crowds. According to Human Rights Watch, for example, the police shot 14-year-old Berkin Elvan in the head with a teargas canister in the Okmeydanı neighborhood of Istanbul, and he still remains in critical condition. Using tear gas canisters as weapons has become commonplace during the protests in Turkey, but this method of diffusion has been criticized by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Physicians for Human Rights. Meanwhile, Turkish police continue to use these dangerous techniques.


A man prepares for tear gas at a journalism demonstration in Istanbul on July 12, 2013.

Özgün Ozkan, a 22-year-old activist and university student, has witnessed the tear gas canisters shot directly at people several times.

“Lots of police shoot their tear gas in the air, like they should,” Ozkan said, “but they mainly target us.”

Typically governments across the globe use tear gas as a method of crowd dispersal because it is believed to only produce short-term discomfort in the eyes, throat, and lungs. However doctors in Istanbul also worry that the type of teargas being used by Turkish police is not regulated and contains extremely harmful chemicals. There is no solid proof to support this concern, but doctors can already see serious medical difficulties in protesters exposed to the gas.

“The government claims that the tear gas is not harmful, but when you look at the human body you can see that it is,” Eriş said. “The effects of this gas will last a long time, it can cause blindness as well as cancer.”

So far, the Turkish police have used over 150,000 gas canisters to disperse crowds during the protests. According to the Turkish Medical Association, over 12,000 people have been treated for tear gas exposure. Out of all people treated, about 20 percent had open wounds due to direct contact with a tear gas canister.

Özgün Ozkan continues to protest the Turkish government despite being directly hit by a tear gas canister. At Cihangir Park, a site used to hold nightly forums about the protests, he tells his story.

“In Dolmabahçe, my finger got badly injured when hit by a gas bomb,” Ozkan said, “After this tear gas was released, I couldn’t breathe and my brain felt like it was shut off. I even had to hold my eyes open with my hands.”
These police tactics continue to shock all involved, but there is little hope for justice. Police continue to get let off for their crimes. So far, no police officers have been punished, even for protestors’ deaths.


On July 9, 2013 Gezi Park reopened in the midst of the first night of Ramadan. A boy lights candles in remembrance of five people killed during protests in Turkey.

“You can never expect what will happen next,” Eriş said. “People cannot predict what the government is going to do and the government cannot predict what the people will do.”

Eriş says she will continue to work at the public hospital near Taksim, even under these tense conditions. When asked whether or not she has personally been exposed to tear gas in the past month, she burst out laughing.

“I have been gassed, he has been gassed, all of Istanbul has been gassed,” she said.
That is the one thing that the people of Istanbul can be sure of.